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In the Shadow of the Public Domain


Jaya Tyagi

RECASTING THE DEVADASI: PATTERNS OF SACRED PROSTITUTION IN COLONIAL SOUTH INDIA
By Priyadarshini Vijaisri
Kanishka Publishers, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 346, Rs. 750.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 3 March 2005

The institution of devadasis represents patriarchal social constructs that sought to maintain caste and gender hierarchies through religious symbolism, rites, rituals and imagery that was invoked by dedicating women (primarily of lower castes and ‘outcastes’) to the service of the temple. The temple in the medieval period emerged as the ‘sacred’ space, the ‘eternal’ household of the gods (and their representatives, the priests)—a space that represented the penumbric state of existence where the public domain intersected with the private. Devadasis were projected as harbingers of reproductivity and fertility, while leading a life of subservience to the temple and the temple priests. It is not surprising that devadasis were simultaneously projected as representing blatant banality on one hand, indulging in prostitution but also attributed with the sacred legitimacy of eternal wedded bliss on the other (hence called nityasumangali—wedded to deities rather than humans). Through this institution, girls were pushed into public space, virtually as ‘sites’ for community usage, to serve patriarchal, caste and feudal interests. The obsession with women’s reproductivity actually served to camouflage the crucial role that women played in production activities and in providing services, both in the temple and outside. Studies on women outside the domestic sphere have either treated these women as deviant aberrations or see them as representing alternative ‘spaces’ of existence wherein, comparatively free from the shackles of domesticity, they are able to acquire learning and skills, possess wealth and have choices in exercising their sexuality. Moving away from these standard approaches, in her thoroughly researched work, Priyadarshini Vijaisri seeks to locate sacred prostitution in a historical framework. She begins with a discussion on the literature that spewed as a result of curiosity regarding sacred prostitution and tantric ritualist practices in the nineteenth century. Observations of foreign travellers and missionaries to more recent scholarship on how the institution was a crystallization of a distinct regional identity of southern regions are duly recorded. Vijaisri then goes on to explore the need to reconstruct the history of people ‘without histories’, the outcastes and especially outcaste women, the dominant mainstream interpretations being centred around upper caste women. The need, according to Vijaisri is to ‘deconstruct the myth of the monolithic identity of the Indian women wherein all women cutting across caste and cultural lines constitute a class as they have shared interest against patriarchal hegemony’. To ‘perceive women as a heterogenous body within specific socio-cultural ...


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